The Politician as Bully

Peggy Noonan, in a WSJ column which is actually worthwhile (rare for her these days, IMO) writes about aspects of Andrew Cuomo’s behavior which she says demonstrate a deep weirdness:

The culture of his office was rife with fear and intimidation. A victim: “It was extremely toxic, extremely abusive. If you got yelled at in front of everyone, it wasn’t any special day. . . . It was controlled largely by his temper, and he was surrounded by people who enabled his behavior.” Everyone feared retaliation for speaking out, so they didn’t.

But there is deep weirdness beyond that. He ordered one aide to memorize the lyrics to “Danny Boy.” She testified he “would pop out” of his office and ask her to start singing. A footnote says it was not the only time the governor asked her to sing. The aide found herself writing to a former staffer, “He just asked me to sing Bohemian Rhapsody so. We aren’t far off from a bedtime story.” He asked her to do push-ups in front of him…

I was reminded of a passage in one of the Hornblower novels in which the protagonist, as a new midshipman, finds himself on a ship with a sickly and disconnected captain and a midshipmen’s mess ruled by a bully, Simpson.

Simpson had apparently always been an ingenious tyrant, but now, embittered and humiliated by his failure to pass his examination for his commission, he was a worse tyrant, and his ingenuity had multiplied itself. He may have been weak in mathematics, but he was diabolically clever at making other people’s lives a burden to them. As senior officer in the mess he had wide official powers; as a man with a blistering tongue and a morbid sense of mischief he would have been powerful anyway, even if the Justinian had possessed an alert and masterful first lieutenant to keep him in check while Mr. Clay was neither…

Significantly, it was not his ordinary exactions which roused the greatest resentment — his levying toll upon their sea chests for clean shirts for himself, his appropriation of the best cuts of the meat served, nor even his taking their coveted issues of spirits. These things could be excused as understandable, the sort of thing they would do themselves if they had the power. But he displayed a whimsical arbitrariness which reminded Hornblower, with his classical education, of the freaks of the Roman emperors. He forced Cleveland to shave the whiskers which were his inordinate pride; he imposed upon Hether the duty of waking up Mackenzie every half hour, day and night, so that neither of them was able to sleep — and there were toadies ready to tell him if Hether ever failed in his task.


Here’s my thought when I finished the report. As America becomes stranger and our culture becomes stranger, our politicians become stranger. As their power increases (I can close a whole state down; I can close a country!) so do the stakes.

As politicians gain more and more power…especially arbitrary power…the kind of people who become politicians changes.  Francis Spufford, in his book Red Plenty, writes about those who sought and achieved power in the Soviet Union.  He notes that:


In the Czarist era, to be an intellectual was to feel that you were, at least potentially, one of those who spoke truth to power. ..These attitudes meant that while intellectuals largely welcomed the Revolution as the end of tsarism, very few of them signed up for Lenin’s brand of Marxism, even when–or especially when–it had state power behind it.  Indeed, a number of scholars who had been happy to teach Marxism before the Revolution, as a way of sticking a finger in the eye of power, promptly started offering courses in religious philosophy after it, to achieve the same effect…By the end of the 1920s, however, the Party was in a position to enforce ideological conformity…the new technological intellectuals were willing to be told, were willing to believe, that the task of speaking truth to power was now redundant, because truth was in power.  (emphasis added)

As the Soviet Union evolved, Spufford says, the rulers viewed themselves as philosopher kings: not soldiers, not policemen, but the people who could give the soldiers and the policemen orders.

But there is a problem with the kingship of philosophers.  Wisdom was to be set where it could be ruthless.  Once such a system existed, though, the qualities required to rise in it had much more to do with ruthlessness than with wisdom…(Lenin’s original Bolsheviks) were many of them highly educated people, literate in multiple European languages, learned in the scholastic traditions of Marxism; and they preserved these attributes even as they murdered and lied and tortured and terrorized.  They were social scientists who thought principle required them to behave like gangsters. But their successors…were not the most selfless people in Soviet society, or the most principled, or the most scrupulous.  They were the most ambitious, the most domineering, the most manipulative…Gradually their loyalty to the ideas became more and more instrumental, more and more a matter of what the ideas would let them grip in their two hands.  In summary:  Stalin had been a gangster who really believed he was a social scientist.  Khrushchev was a gangster who hoped he was a social scientist. But the moment was drawing irresistibly closer when the idealism would rot away by one more degree, and the Soviet Union would be government by gangsters who were only pretending to be social scientists.

In the Russian WWII TV series The Attackers, a man called Pasha is the political commissar attached to an aviation regiment. His duties include political education/indoctrination, ensuring that the regimental commander’s actions are in line with the regime’s desires, and taking action against any personnel who commit politically disfavored actions or express forbidden opinions.

He is quick with accusations of treason against the regiment’s members. When sabotage of one of the planes is discovered, Pasha assumes the regiment’s own mechanics did it and wants to have them immediately shot. In this instance, the regimental commander, a fatherly sort of man, is able to avoid precipitous action …”calm down, Pasha” … and get a proper investigation conducted, which shows that the mechanics had nothing to do with the sabotage. But overall, it is very dangerous for anyone, even the commander, to stand up against Pasha.

Pasha also views all of the regiment’s women (it is a mixed male/female organization) as his for the taking.

It seems inevitable that continued and virtually limitless increase in the arbitrary powers of American officials and officeholders will lead to more and more Pasha-like behavior.


26 thoughts on “The Politician as Bully”

  1. Intriguing premise. My thoughts, having observed politics and politicians for some time, is that the best potential candidates want nothing to do with it, for the most part.

    To attain that office (unless you were Trump) you have to grovel before special interests and become beholden to them. Endure false “exposes” from a vengeful media.

    A friend of mine said something interesting the other day. He lives on the tarmac of our general aviation airport, and he was saying with this governor recall election, the number of private jets coming and going is something to behold.

    Lobbyists. he presumed, dispensing their largesse.

    As to Cuomo, I once had a boss like that. Didn’t demand people to sing or do pushups, but frequently yelled at them. Even the vendors talked about him behind his back.

    You never knew what would set him off.

    After a week of being there I thought, “What am I doing here?”

    Didn’t want to quit as it would look bad on the resume.

    As it was, in the end we both got what we wanted. I got fired at 11 months with a nice severance check. Went to the South Pacific and sent him a post card at each stop.

    As for Cuomo the adage that “we get what we deserve” for the people we vote in seems ever truer.

  2. I used to be a Noonan fan. But for the last 15 years ago she has frequently written on behalf of the same autocrats she happens to criticize this week.

  3. What the anecdote of the singing and push-ups illustrates most clearly is that even the overtly sexual assaults weren’t about sexual gratification but about humiliating the victim and asserting Cuomo’s dominance. It reflects very poorly on all of those around him, both victims and enablers, that they were willing to countenance this behavior for what has to be many years.

    At least when LBJ played this game by forcing aids and reporters to pay court to him as he sat on the throne, the victims were men.

    It identifies both as cunning, third raters that had to resort to the power of their undeserved position to cover for their lack of accomplishment. There seem to be an endless supply of toadies willing to endure any amount of debasement in exchange for proximity to power or even the reflected ersatz glory of “celebrity”.

    If I were Cuomo, I wouldn’t be planning any sort of retirement. The ranging shots of corruption probes have been falling very close and will undoubtedly strike home as soon as he is forced from the cover of his office.

  4. Noonan’s worthless. Like George Will, she should have retired 20 years ago. As it is, she has nothing interesting to say about contemporary politics.
    Andy’s a thug. A complete piece of trash. He has treated NY as his own personal fiefdom for decades now. And he was able to do it because the separation of powers that was built into the state governance for centuries was completely destroyed by the idiotic “one person one vote” Supreme Court atrocity. The NY state constitution *explicitly* prevented NYC from dominating the state senate until that was thrown in the trash. So power was centralized more and more in the city, and in Albany (run by the “three men in a room” system), and in a system where complete power is there for the taking, the most ambitious and brutal figures see the opportunity and go for it.
    My bet is still that he rides it out. He holds the rest of the state’s politicians in complete contempt as pitiful weaklings who aren’t capable of taking him on, and he’s probably right to do so.

  5. Brian beat me to it. Cuomo is a thug. That’s been obvious at least since he was HUD secretary in the Clinton administration. Being a thug has worked out well for him.

    The Democrats were fine with Cuomo until his homicidal ineptitude during COVID and his sexual bullying of subordinates became potential political liabilities. With Cuomo thus compromised his Democratic political competitors have begun to undermine him publicly. The Democrats are fine with Cuomo’s being a thug. They are concerned about him only because his behavior has begun to jeopardize his ability to win elections.

    Hayek in The Road to Serfdom had a chapter titled “Why the Worst Get on Top”. The continuing growth of govt and politicization of ever-larger segments of American life create a fertile career environment for people like Cuomo – and worse.

  6. You invest power in a position inside a hierarchy, and then do not actually implement any real controls on the wielding of said power…?

    This is what you get. In a rational world, where the allowed hierarchy isn’t that big or granted that much power, Cuomo would have gotten his teeth pushed in for trying that crap on his fellow humans. In the world we’ve created for ourselves, these sick pervert power-trippers can do as they like, because the rest of us have given them that power over us.

    We’re the problem. In a system that didn’t grant this much authority and power to the sick bastards like Cuomo, this sort of thing would never arise. But, because “Governor”, we let them get away with it, and because of that, these positions naturally attract the sickos.

    Humans do not do hierarchy at all well. We may start out well, with the original saint-like sorts running the game, but as soon as they’re gone and the power-hungry sickos show up to run things? Yeah; we stop doing so well.

    Key thing is, don’t invest power into these hierarchies. This is a participation thing; quit participating in it, and quit asking these vast impersonal power-sink agencies to do things for you–If you’re independent and uninvested in the game, you’re far better off in the long run.

    Oh, and when these assholes show up at your door, to enforce their petty will upon you? Follow the Three-S precept. Eventually, they’ll quit coming back.

  7. “If we must have a tyrant a robber baron is far better than an inquisitor. The baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity at some point be sated; and since he dimly knows he is doing wrong he may possibly repent. But the inquisitor who mistakes his own cruelty and lust of power and fear for the voice of Heaven will torment us infinitely because he torments us with the approval of his own conscience and his better impulses appear to him as temptations. ”

    The Democrat Party is a theocracy; just one without a god.

  8. It is understandable that midshipmen in Hornblower’s time would endure the torment. England’s navy in those days still proudly wielded the Cat o’ Nine Tails on the backs of any sailors who spoke up. And it is understandable that misused women in the Age of Cuomo would not immediately file a lawsuit against Democrat Numero Uno in a country where it is understood that laws simply do not apply to Democrat insiders. But why don’t the abused & aggrieved simply quit?

    The sad implication is that most of those abused non-quitters thought they were simply paying their dues, so that some day they in turn could have the opportunity to misuse their own underlings. It is tough to have much sympathy for anyone in Democrat circles in New York. And the non-New Yorker wonders why patting a woman’s behind is unforgiveable while sending that woman’s mother to probable death in a disease-infected home warrants merely a shrug.

    There will always be people like Cuomo. The problem is not with him. The problem lies with the great mass of the people of New York who have allowed the likes of him to be enthroned.

  9. Will no one come to the defense of this selfless public servant that has given the best years of his life to self aggrandizement and driving the Empire State into the ground? Correction: foregoing personal opportunity and safeguarding the lives of the most vulnerable citizens. (darn auto-complete)

    The Democrats had no issues with his homicidal ineptitude and sexual bullying, certainly not when it might have done some good. The real question is who has a problem with him as possible competition for the next Democratic Presidential nomination. I don’t think it’s the Harris machine.

    I find it impossible to imagine that Cuomo has enough appeal West of the Hudson to be a viable candidate but I couldn’t believe it about a demented moron either.

  10. Gavin, the system creates these people. Cuomo happened because of where he was brought up, and how that experience enabled him, allowing him to give free rein to his power-hunger. I’d wager that the family he grew up in was as pathologic as he is, because that sort of behavior doesn’t just come into existence all on its own. He likely “paid his dues” with his father, and because of that, he thinks he’s entitled to get his own back.

    Improperly administered hierarchy does this. You can see it in the military, with the situations where out-of-control hazing progresses from a rite-of-passage sort of thing to “Well, I got abused in training, so now that I’m in charge, I get to abuse the new accessions in turn…”.

    It’s very much the same as when you see spousal and child abuse passed down the generations in certain families–You give what you got, and it takes a much better-than-average human being to put a stop to the near-endless chain of abuse.

    Creatures like Cuomo happen because their environment allowed and encouraged that sort of behavior. What we’re doing now? It’s like that classic homily of Heinlein’s, in Starship Troopers, where they’re talking about spanking a baby with an axe. The real root of this problem goes back to Cuomo’s childhood and the entitled environment he was apparently raised in, the one that gave him the idea that what he was doing was even remotely acceptable, let alone right. I’m quite sure that were you to confront him with his BS, he’d no doubt tell you that what he was doing wasn’t actually, y’know… Abuse. He’s the product of a deranged and damaged family, which is pretty much indicated by who his father was. “Liberal Democrat” usually indicates a pathologic personality complex, generally associated with narcissism. If nothing else, Mariel Cuomo obviously enabled the growth of this monstrous pair of cretins, his sons.

    I don’t think I’ve ever met a single politician that didn’t give off massive “creepshow” vibes. They’re all deranged and damaged egotist/narcissists that we ought to be institutionalizing well away from the public, instead of enshrining as the living saints we treat them as. Frankly, the very fact that you’re sufficiently egotistical and arrogant enough to want to become a professional politician? Prima facie evidence that you ought not be entrusted with any sort of power or authority. Kinda like anyone wanting to be a cop…? Probably shouldn’t be one.

  11. “I find it impossible to imagine that Cuomo has enough appeal West of the Hudson to be a viable candidate but I couldn’t believe it about a demented moron either.”

    Yup. The powers-that-be must have simply epic levels of voter fraud in train, to get an abusive jerk like Cuomo, or someone like the FICUS, or Willie Brown’s “special lady friend” into higher office and to keep them there.

  12. “The sad implication is that most of those abused non-quitters thought they were simply paying their dues, so that some day they in turn could have the opportunity to misuse their own underlings”

    I think it is more a matter of ambition of the sort that caused women to line up for Bill Cosby or Errol Flynn or Harry Cohn or Weinstein. They see a chance to use their sex to get a career. Some may be budding abusers but most Marilyn Monroe who said, after her big break, “I’ll never have to give another blowjob.”

  13. Hmm. Since we’re referring to matters Russian, the “thug at the top of political pyramid” explanations could be summarized in two popular sayings
    “против лома нет приёма”
    “рыба гниёт с головы”
    I’m in a difficulty to translate them concisely.

  14. There were several articles last year quoting various women as to how *turned on* they got watching Cuomo speak on television.

    Certainly many women do find the projection of competence, especially coupled with power and status, to be very attractive. But evidently Cuomo *in person* must come across in a way that negatively overpowers these factors.

  15. “Power attracts pathological personalities. It is not that power corrupts but that it is magnetic to the corruptible.”

    ― Frank Herbert

  16. As with Bill Clinton or any number of other political predators, I’m sure he is very charismatic in person, whether that’s due to power or personality, I have no idea. And of course when he sees the opportunity, he drops the pretense and becomes a monster.
    All I can say is I hope none of the more serious accusers said anything at all positive about him after they say the incidents happened. If so, then he’ll latch onto that and be home free…The longer he lasts, the lower the odds get that he’ll be removed from office. What are the odds markets giving for him still being in office through the next election? I’m not a gambling man, but that’s a bet I’d take, and I suspect make a nice profit…

  17. ISTR Arthur C. Clarke’s (?) line about how a desire for political power ought to disqualify a person from politics.

    Cousin Eddie

  18. “What the anecdote of the singing and push-ups illustrates most clearly is that even the overtly sexual assaults weren’t about sexual gratification but about humiliating the victim and asserting Cuomo’s dominance.”

    I just read a book on the BTK serial killer. He had a similar motive as he never raped his victims. His sexual pleasure came from humiliating and torturing them. Cuomo seems to have never gone that far but BTK could never have aspired to 15,000 victims.

  19. I wonder if there aren’t stories of him doing the same to men in his thrall. Not the groping maybe, though I’d hate to unjustly accuse him of being so cis-normative, but lots of public humiliation. Notice how the nomenclature of feudalism fits right in.

  20. The old “gentleman don’t do things like that” is surely one of the many examples that may be lost in fatherless households (I can’t imagine a mother setting up those verbally is nearly as potent as a good role model). On the other hand, some families (say, the royal Kennedys) were surely made worse by their father’s example. Mario Cuomo seemed self-servinng but I didn’t follow his career; what kind of a model was he?

  21. I have read things saying that Mario was very, very hard on Andrew, and that he became such a bully and thug in order to impress his father that he was a capable and dutiful son. Italian men of Mario’s generation were not exactly known for their touchy-feely parenting style. Who knows what goes on in families.

  22. Of course, some gentlemen always did exactly that and always have. All the old rules about open doors or third parties in a room with didn’t happen from pure imagination. Hat pins were for more than keeping hats on heads.

    How many times do you think a Kennedy took no for an answer?

  23. Cuomo’s out, I bet he’s indicted by Jan.1. Not for sex but probably corruption. Too many close associates in jail to be a coincidence and now that he won’t be handing out any pardons some tongues may be loosened. Maybe it will get easier to see who thought he was in the way.

  24. “The sad implication is that most of those abused non-quitters thought they were simply paying their dues, so that some day they in turn could have the opportunity to misuse their own underlings.”

    This, I am sad to report, is a fairly common “thing” among those who aspire to become drill instructors in the military. Also, teaching damn near anything, anywhere–It’s amazing to me the number of petty tyrants that develop out of abusive childhood situations. Most of the really pathologic types I’ve known were all abused either emotionally or physically as children, and the really odd thing was how they seemed to seek out those situations, never taking any pro-active steps to avoid them or get out of them. Then, when they themselves were “promoted by seniority” into positions of power over their former positions…? They turned into the worst sort of sociopathic control-freak abusers, perpetuating things unto the next generations…

    The ratio I’ve observed seems to be about two-thirds of the abused population turning into abusers, a sixth becoming apathetic and near-catatonic in terms of their relations with others and within the hierarchies they join, and only about another sixth that tries to overcome things and cease participating in the abuse.

    Sadly, we’re only human, and you really need all-round selfless saints to run and participate in the hierarchies we persist in creating to deal with things.

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